I'm doing my bachelors degree in mathematics right now at a state school. I know I'm not a top student and have made just pretty good grades in my undergrad career, but fell behind in others (a D in a conceptual physics course) due to numerous reason like 18 hr semesters while working, got married, had some health and family issues, (not to mention my freshman and sophomore years in which I didn't even want to be in school, and even went on academic probation). After retaking a couple core courses, I have a 3.2 GPA out of 4.0. Also, I will have done undergrad research (starting next semester).

However things are calming down too little too late, and I've got about 2 semesters left. I've really come to love the study of math, and I would really like to study at the master's degree level.

Most of the 'poor GPA blah blah' questions around here have to do with getting into a doctoral program. I'm curious though if it may be easier for me to get into a decent masters program than if I were attempting a PhD? I'm not looking to get into some Ivy or otherwise 'prestigious' school, but I would like to get into something good.

I would be doing it part time (2 courses per semester) so I can focus and make good grades.

Is there hope?

  • 2
    It depends on the institution and the country you're in.
    – Ébe Isaac
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 12:57

3 Answers 3


Not every STEM Master's program is going to be easier to get into than every PhD program, but on the whole they are easier. Universities are much more likely to take you if you're paying your own way (aka. a Masters) than if they have to fund you. In the US it's common for students who didn't do so well in undergrad or are from a lesser known international school to pay their way through a Masters first and then go on to a PhD after proving their worth.

That being said, do not discount how helpful research can be. A published paper or a good letter of recommendation from a known professor can go a long way to erasing some bad grades. What counts in a PhD program is your ability to do research.

  • Thanks for the answer. I'm not too ashamed of my overall math grades, mainly A's and B's (and a C in a Numerical analysis course I took before I had any proof experience). What's really "hurting" me are my grades in a couple physics courses I tried for the hell of it. I get physics, but since it's not my major I put it on the back-burner and ended up failing a couple of tests and ending up with a D in the (very conceptual) modern physics. Otherwise, most things are not too bad -- A's in Modern Algebra, Real analysis, and Complex analysis; B's in ODEs and PDEs, etc.
    – galois
    Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 23:08
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    A couple of poorer grades in an outside subject isn't the end of the world. Many applications will specifically ask for your major GPA. You should ask your academic adviser and the professor you'll be working with for their advice.
    – Ric
    Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 23:18
  • If I were to take a separate (but more mathematical) physics course and do well, will it look better? Or should I focus on my major courses?
    – galois
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 0:06
  • @jaska, I'd imagine that rocking an upper or graduate level math course in the area you want to do research in will be better. But a lot of it depends upon the specific schools you want to apply to and your subject. Ask your adviser
    – Ric
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 1:01
  • I'll add that a funded masters degree (where the student doesn't have to pay) is often very competitive (just as competitive as PhD) adding evidence that funding is the main reason why the PhD is more competitive Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 1:51

Generally, a master program is easier to get into than a PhD because:

  • You pay for yourself
  • You don't have to find a supervisor
  • The university can deliver the same program to many students

That being said, from what I can see, you're very concerned about your academic grades. This is not a good indicator being a good phd student. Nobody cares how many A you have as a phd student, it's your ability to do research matters. Your grades won't matter ("look good" in your words), because every other phd student has the same grades.

Unless you are truly interested in research, you should just focus on master degrees.

  • To be fair, though, as an undergrad (with no research experience yet), "good grades" is all I know :-) I'm starting undergrad research soon, hopefully, so we'll see how it works out.
    – galois
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 0:39
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    I'd disagree with the statement "You pay for yourself." Although some programs in the US don't offer TA/RA support to MS students, there are many graduate programs in mathematics that offer TA and/or RA support to MS students (the program at my institution is an example.) In departments that only have an MS degree this is particularly common. In departments with a PhD program it is typically the case that PhD students get the first pick of these funding opportunities and in many cases there's simply no money left for MS students. Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 2:45
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    "You don't have to find a supervisor" also isn't true in all cases. Some MS degree programs in the US are by coursework only, while others do require a thesis or significant project. Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 2:46
  • @BrianBorchers and these types of masters are generally more competitive than ones you have to pay yourself in my experience. Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 1:52

There are also diversity fellowships/scholarships available for Masters students. Being you completed your undergraduate in spite of personal hardships, this shows strength of character and dedication which is what some fellowship/scholarship grantors are looking for. I managed to get my masters program covered in full with a stipend. So do some diligent research on what fellowships/scholarships are available, and apply to as many as you can. Also think about doing volunteer work, to show how you are passionate about the subject and how you want to give back. For example, tutoring high school students from poorly funded schools could be an option.

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